"You Think I Need What?!" OR Cane Training 101

'We are such stuff as dreams are made on'

I used to have blind dreams. I suppose they should really be called nightmares. They started around the time of my first detached retina operation some thirty-six years ago. I’d get them two or three times a month and they'd usually follow the same pattern, but take place in different locations and situations. For example, I’d find myself on the top deck of a bus and somebody would ask me the time. I’d check my watch and then suddenly realise that I couldn’t see the hands on the watch face. I’d panic and look around me and notice that everything had become blurred. The world was now unrecognisable. I’d blink and blink and shake my head, but the blurriness wouldn’t shift. I’d get up and try to make my way down the stairs so that I could get off the bus. I’d spend the rest of the dream trying to find the stairs - but I never could. In another dream I’d arrive at work to discover that I couldn’t find my office. Again, everything had become blurred. All detail was gone. My ordinary surroundings would disappear into a hazy fog and I’d be left groping around the walls trying to find a door. Sometimes I’d be in the street at night and the same thing would happen. I’d stagger around trying to find help, but I could never get anybody else in the dream to understand what was happening to me. It was scary stuff and always left me with a weird sense of foreboding.

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Just in case you don't know what blurriness is... this is a very hazy picture of two people walking down a road hand-in-hand. Yes, I'm not convinced either.

Anyway, I think that those recurrent dreams were likely triggered by my eye consultant’s not-so-cosy post-retinal-operation chat all those years ago. I had sat in his office at the hospital, in one of those draughty open-backed mildly-obscene hospital gowns and my pink fluffy slippers (not obscene). I also sported a plastic patch-thingy over my left eye (and a sick bowl rested on my knee waiting for inevitable action). As he began to speak, his tone was incredibly grave and he had a facial expression to match. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of serious situation that makes me want to giggle inappropriately (which is why I could never be an undertaker). I know I should be taking this stuff equally seriously (I am an adult after all) but nobody had told the sensible part of my brain, that frankly, should be dealing with this shit - to deal with this shit. Instead, the hilarity centre (if there is such a thing) goes into comedy overdrive. So, while I’m desperately trying to stifle a stupid grin, Mr Smith (that’s a guess, I can’t remember his name, it was a long time ago) tells me that from now on I need to avoid any kind of knock to my head since my retinas were now in a very precarious state. They could ping away from the back of my eye (he didn’t say ping) at a moment’s notice and then that would be it. No more sight for me.

He gave me a list of the things I should no longer do – for the rest of my life (and at the age of 21 I was hoping I'd have quite a few years left). It included some obvious generic ‘no shit Sherlock’ stuff such as not falling over and banging my head or not bashing my head on an overhanging object; to more extreme occupations such as jumping out of an aeroplane, skiing down a mountainside, heading a football, going diving, or giving birth (say what??). Thankfully, I had no intention of doing any of the first four things and I’d deal with the fifth if, and when, it ever happened. So, I left the hospital with my dodgy retinas and the words of the specialist ringing around my head. And of course, as I've already said, this is when I think the blind dreams started to kick in. Indeed, while I was getting on with my everyday life (i.e. ignoring my eyesight issues and trying to find a plane to jump out of), my unconscious mind was helpfully (or unhelpfully, depends on your perspective) dealing with all the internal sight-loss Sword-of-Damocles type anxiety for me in the background – and always in the dead of night. 

But what, you might ask, has any of this got to do with cane training, which is, after all, the subject of this section? Well, in all of those years of blind dreams, I never had one in which a white cane appeared (with hindsight it would have been useful). It simply never occurred to me that one day I might need one. After all, those things are for blind people, right? And I was never going to be one of those.

One day I got very close to being run over by a car while crossing the road. If I’m honest, this wasn’t the first occasion – although I should make it clear that it wasn’t the same car. It wasn’t like someone had a personal vendetta against me (I hope). I’d already given up driving and attempting to go out at night by myself because of quite severe night blindness, but during the day I thought I was coping. I wasn’t. At the end of 2020 I spoke to my eye consultant and he thought it might be best for me to be registered as sight impaired. It felt like a strange formal acknowledgement of how bad things had got and, for a while, it didn’t sit well with me.

I was told that it would enable me to receive some kind of support – but what kind of support would I be offered? I really had no idea, although I was hoping for free ice cream.

Anyway, a move into a third Covid lockdown in England in January 2021 slowed the process down. It also meant that my assessment with the Wirral Visual Rehabilitation Team happened over the phone rather than in person. It went on for a remarkably long time and disappointingly, by the end of it, I didn’t hear anything about free ice cream. What I did pick up on was a suggestion that I might need a cane to help me get around. My first horrified response was, “you think I need what?” Hold on, that’s a bit over the top, isn’t it? Firstly, there’s no free ice cream on offer, and then you tell me I need a white cane? One of those things that blind people use? The very patient person on the other end of the phone suggested that it was certainly something I could think about and that they’d put me on the waiting list for ‘long cane’ training. This statement needed a bit of deconstructing in my head. What was a ‘long cane’ and why would you need to be trained to use it? And why was it being offered to me? There must be some mistake.

 

Fortunately, I was saved by the Covid-restrictions bell, which allowed me to go away and not think about it for five months - which I didn’t. (I’m pretty good at that). In the meantime, I received a yellow card to show that I was now officially registered as sight impaired (not that I had to leave the pitch) and a whole pile of information to read. I also received something called a ‘symbol cane’ which is a short white foldable cane that you hold out in front of you so that other people can be made aware that you have a sight 

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No free ice cream...

issue. At the time nobody (including me) was going anywhere anyway, so I didn’t use it. I was also afraid to use it. I’d spent a lot of time over the years hiding my sight issues. Why would I now want to openly declare this to people – in public? It was rare that I even allowed anyone to see the ‘Glasses of Doom’ (my very thick prescription specs if you missed this reference) never mind wander around the streets announcing my sight loss? Yep, I still hadn’t come out of the visual-impairment closet, so to speak. But this was all to change with the arrival, on an ordinary Monday afternoon in May, of my white cane training trainer (not his official title). More of this in the next section:

Soon you can read - Take a Walk on the Wild Side OR Cane Training 102 (when I've written it)